Why Do Young People Join ISIS?

By Arthur Brown

Much of my career has involved working with young people participating in ‘risky behaviour’. This included drug use, gang membership, reckless riding of stolen motorbikes, etc. As a youth worker my role was to understand what motivated them and hopefully seek ways of reducing the risk of serious harm.

Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy continues to confound the majority of humanity – even those who claim to follow Jesus. Throughout history, societies and nations generally depersonalise the enemy, categorizing them as ‘other’, whereby ‘other’ represents all things evil and in opposition to their own values and identities. It is easy to do this with ISIS, given their barbaric activities.

However, what happens when we realise that the enemy is increasingly coming from within? When the enemy is made up of individuals with names, with families, with tragic histories and experiences that some of us might actually share. Experiences which lead them – perhaps with some degree of rationality – to join organisations such as ISIS?

Young people are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that ‘More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), according to a UN report.’ As a result, countries around the world are being confronted by the reality that their young people are willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to ‘play their part’ in the establishment of the so called caliphate ISIS is seeking to establish.

But what is ‘their part’? One of the compelling features of ISIS is that, like any other state, they need all sorts of people to fulfill all sorts of roles. Whilst fighters and executioners receive the majority of attention, ISIS is a growing institution with a widening recruitment strategy and appeal. The evidence indicates that though conditions of poverty and educational deficit are strong factors in motivating young people to join ISIS, the truth is there are also highly educated young people from around the world who are keen to join. The three 15 & 16 year old girls from my area of East London [all A grade students in school] who recently traveled to Syria to become ‘ISIS brides’ are a case in point.

It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided, and this may be true. However the ever increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join must cause us to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions.

There are two main categories of motivation when thinking about risk taking behaviour. Abundance motivation drives individuals to seek  ‘peak’ experiences, a buzz or thrill. Young people often crave excitement, a sense of living life to the max! Deficiency motivation, on the other hand, seeks to make up for something that is lacking in an individual – in some way to suppress pain. What tends to motivate someone to take cocaine for example is different to what tends to motivate someone to take heroine. The former is a stimulant, the latter a pain-killer. Ultimately, young people take risks expecting some benefit or pay-off.

Other reasons why young people take risks include:

  • Symbolic identity: Developing a personal identity, which is recognised and validated in some way by others, is important for young people.
  • The need to belong: This is the motivation behind much, if not most, human behaviour. This is perhaps critical when considering what might motivate a young person to join ISIS.
  • To release anger: For some, violence is a powerful means of release. This is particularly so when the target of violence is the authority or value system that has lead to the development of such anger in the first place.
  • To escape or ‘numb’ the pain: Feelings of hopelessness and pain are also strong motivators; however, in these cases risk taking behavior is more likely a motivation to seek escape or ‘salvation’ in some form.

So, what might motivate a young person to join ISIS?

Motivation is multi-facetted and each potential ISIS recruit will probably have a complex mix of abundance and deficiency motivation that might attract them towards ISIS membership.

Bab el Tabaneh in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is an area that has seen ongoing tension and violence between neighboring communities for decades. It is now one of the recruitment hubs for various extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front.

According to scholar Mohammad Abi Samra,

The population lives well below the poverty line. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are high and broken families are common, as is early marriage and random divorce and pregnancy. This poor neighborhood has become an environment of instability, violence, and broken homes, a breeding ground for street gangs of unemployed and drug-addicted youth who get into pointless bloody fights on a daily basis.[1]

We can all probably think of places not too far from where we live that sound similar. I used to live in a community in London that was often described in such terms!

It is within this context that boys and young men experience a life of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm. Bab el Tabaneh and similar communities have cultures of poverty and desperation with a sense of rage simmering beneath the fragile daily grind – waiting to erupt at any opportunity. Recent events, including suicide bombings and the killing of well-known leader Badr Eid, have only heightened tensions. It is within this context that ISIS and others are so prevalent in their recruitment drive.

What have these young people got to loose? The answer – not much! Their desire for ‘salvation’ – the need to escape – becomes a fixation, one that ISIS and others are able to exploit.

Many of the young people from the region who are joining these groups, and who come from such impoverished and desperate circumstances, are uneducated and have suffered under local and regional security apparatuses, especially those of the Syrian regime during its occupation of Lebanon. Anger and resentment towards both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities runs deep and hostilities regularly flare up.

What does ISIS offer these young people?

Perhaps the main thing that ISIS can offer is a means of escape. Local mosques and prayer halls influenced by the Islamist ideas of ISIS are places where young people from similar backgrounds have found ‘salvation’ within a certain interpretation of Islam. This Islam has offered an escape from isolation and self-destruction into a community that offers discipline, respectability and dignity. Former gang members have become community leaders and role-models to the ‘wretched’ youth of impoverished communities. However, the young people who are ‘being saved’ lack much formal education and the ability to think critically and engage in a wider social discourse. They are easily led, and often lack even a basic understanding of Islam – other than what is being fed to them by some extremists in their communities. In fact, many of these young people are not attracted to Islam per se, but rather have a desire to escape (Abi Samra 230-234). The other significant thing ISIS can offer is a sense of belonging to something bigger and more significant than these young people may have ever been able to imagine. This is a trend that is growing by the day, as the vision of ISIS and what it offers becomes more significant.

So, what is the role of the faith communities – and the church?

Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemy, as well as their neighbour. The reality is that our neighbors – young people from our communities – are becoming ‘the enemy’. So how can we even begin to think about loving them, when loving them involves taking loving actions towards them?

In the first instance I think we need to recognise that each of these young people has a name and a history that has led them to take such a radical decision. They too are created in the image of God, however disturbing this may be to us. Rather than writing them off as ‘crazy’, ‘sick’ or ‘evil’, maybe we should try to understand the conditions that led them to be willing to join such organisations. In no way am I seeking to justify their actions, just to understand them.

It would be easy for the church to stay out of it. How might the church have a role in being a peace-maker between different Muslim communities? Poverty does not make distinctions between religious communities. Recently, at least two Lebanese Christians from Tripoli have joined extremist terrorist groups, further highlighting that maybe it is not Islam per se that drives people towards groups like ISIS. One is believed to have joined ISIS, while another was arrested in connection with suicide attacks in a neighbouring community. In such contexts maybe peace-loving churches need to build friendships with peace-loving mosques, to seek ways not only to reject violence, but to address the conditions that lead to such fertile recruitment grounds. Maybe the role of the global church is to take an interest in the local contexts from where ISIS members originate and seek to support initiatives that counter hatred and discrimination, asking prophetic questions about how nations could and should respond in such challenging circumstances. In the mean time, why not pray for these young men and women and for their families… as well as for the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the devastating realities on the ground in the region.

___________________________

[1] Mohammad Abi Samra, ‘Revenge of the Wretched: Islam and Violence in the Bab al Tabaneh Neighborhood of Tripoli’ in Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Times of Risk, ed. Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf (London: SAQI Books, 2011), p.222.

2 thoughts on “Why Do Young People Join ISIS?

  1. WHAT AN ABSELUTE TRAGEDY. IT IS MY CONVICTION THAT UPWARD OF 90% OF THE WORLD POPULATION CAN BE DEEMED TO BE MODERATE, YET AS A WHOLE WE HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO PUT A STOP TO THE SENSELESS AND WHOLESALE SLAUGHTER OF NON COMBATANTS, A PRACTISE CONDEMED BY CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS ALIKE.FURTHER MORE THE ULTRA EFFECTIVE REMOTE BOMBING CANPAIGN NOW WIDELY USED BY THE WEST, CAUSES HUGE COLATORAL DAMAGE, SPURRING FURTHER HATRED AND REPRISAL, FUELING THE CYCLE OF REVENGE AND VIOLENCE. SADDEST OF ALL, 70% OF THE YOUTH JOINING ISIS AND OTHER EXTREMIST GROUPS WILL BE DEAD IN LESS THAT 3 YEARS, KILLED WITH OUR TAX MONEY.

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